Monday, November 17, 2008

Post No. 67: The Dangers Associated with Being "Peculiar"

The Dangers Associated with Being Peculiar, Revisited

Over the past week, much has been made of the issue of same sex marriage and civil unions. Even on this blog, a very lively exchange developed, with individuals on all sides weighing in with their views.

We thought that it might be a good time to re-post one of our earlier articles about being "peculiar." We'd appreciate your thoughts.

© 2008, The Institute for Applied Common Sense

Several years ago, I attended a conference sponsored by a professional association at a high end resort in Florida. An incredible buffet dinner was scheduled for one evening, to which everyone was looking forward.

I arrived just as the food was being taken away.

Upon my arrival, everyone inquired as to why I was so late. When I informed them that I felt compelled to watch two episodes of the Andy Griffith Show, they all howled with laughter.

Their laughter grew even louder when I mentioned that, in my opinion, one could learn more about life from that show than perhaps any other show on television. (Interestingly, my Father tells me that it was also the favorite show of my Mother, who passed away at a relatively early age.)

I saw an episode of the show yesterday, which reminded me of the manner in which this simple show, about life in small town America, has provoked many a thought throughout my lifetime.

It was the story of Ed Sawyer, a clean-cut, well-groomed stranger who arrives in Mayberry. Throughout the episode, Ed is always dressed in a conservative business suit, articulate, respectful, polite, and there is nothing visually alarming about him. In fact, he could be the poster boy for virtually any All-American organization or movement.

The first scene in the episode unfolds as Ed enters Floyd’s barbershop, where Barney Fife is in the chair getting a shave. Several other citizens, including Andy, are also present.

Ed engages them all in a pleasant, upbeat conversation, calls them each by name, and exhibits a degree of familiarity which causes the shop’s occupants to become uncomfortable. As he leaves the shop, all heads turn to follow him down the street, and they all exit to watch his next move. Almost immediately, there is a suggestion by Barney that Andy commence an investigation of this suspicious and “peculiar” stranger.

As Ed proceeds down the sidewalk, he encounters a double baby stroller parked in front of a store, where the mother is looking through the shop window. Ed greets the two twins, their mother, and then poses questions which suggest that he can distinguish between the two boys at this early stage in their development. The suspicions grow.

Ed next proceeds to the local rooming house, and when offered one room, he declines because of an incident which had occurred in the room, arguably about which few would have known. Although he has never stayed at the rooming house, he then proceeds to request a specific room, by number, which although green in color, has a cheerier d├ęcor.

At this point, Barney is beside himself, and inquires whether Ed speaks German. Fortunately, Andy, the voice of reason, intervenes and initiates a conversation more normally associated with welcoming a visitor to one’s town. At the same time, Andy poses a number of questions in an effort to get to know this fellow better, since he is also experiencing some degree of discomfort, although unarticulated.

Later that afternoon, Ed approaches Andy and seeks his advice and assistance. It appears that the local gas station is up for sale, and Ed is considering buying it. Andy suggests that perhaps Ed might be moving a tad too quickly, and that he should take the time to get to know the townspeople a little better.

He further suggests that the town’s citizens might regard Ed’s sudden emergence on the scene as “peculiar,” without some “warming up.” (By the way, I learned the word “peculiar” from this show, which was used with some frequency on episodes airing in the 1960’s.)

Ed then segues into how much in love he is with Lucy Matthews, who he has never seen. However, he is familiar with all of her physical attributes, and he inquires of Andy as to why she does not answer his calls and knocks on her door. Lucy soon walks in to lodge a complaint, to which Ed responds that she is just as pretty as he suspected. It is at this point that Andy feels, as the town’s sheriff, he must get to the bottom of this behavior, since it threatens to disturb the town’s peace.

Ed admits that his behavior might strike some as odd, but provides a very plausible, if not immediately obvious, explanation. Ed explains that Joe Larson, a long-time resident of Mayberry, was an Army buddy. While serving together, Joe received the local Mayberry newspaper, and Ed found himself reading the paper on a daily basis.

As time moved on, he began to feel that he “knew” the citizens about whom the articles were written. He further explains that over time, he began to envy Joe, because Joe was from Mayberry, a place that Ed admired, and Ed was from, well, “Nowhere.”

Ed further explains that over time, he began to wish that Mayberry was his hometown, and he eventually convinced himself that it was. When he saw the ad in the paper that the service station was up for sale, he regarded it as an opportunity to fulfill a dream.

After Ed leaves the courthouse / jail, Barney rushes in and proclaims that Ed has finally “overplayed his hand.” When Andy inquires as to what Barney is referring, Barney states that Ed has been hanging around Lucy Matthews’ house and actually crossed the line by ringing her bell.

Andy suggests that insufficient grounds exist to justify an arrest, to which Barney replies that he pulled in three 12 year olds the preceding Halloween for ringing doorbells unnecessarily.

He further exclaims that Ed doesn’t even have the excuse of being out for trick or treat. Deputy Fife then inquires as to whether Ed speaks Spanish.

Of course, Ed’s efforts to integrate himself into the community go terribly wrong. That’s even after Andy makes everyone feel pretty small and provincial after facetiously suggesting that they all were justified in their prejudicial attitudes toward this stranger, just because he was an unknown, peculiar, and somewhat different.

Ed realizes that this really isn’t the place for him, and leaves. And the town lost a potentially energizing and illuminating individual.

This 40 plus year old episode of the Andy Griffith Show made me think of several things this weekend. First, the power of the visual media came to mind, along with its potential to expand the minds of its viewers, particularly young viewers, as well as its power to narrow.

Second, it reminded me of the 30 year period when I lived in Southern California, and I interacted with all sorts of people of different races from different parts of the world. Virtually everyone was a stranger. Upon returning to North Carolina, despite the fact that North Carolina is the number one state in terms of percentage increase of Hispanics, I noticed the lack of interaction between whites and blacks on the one hand, and Hispanics on the other. Asians operate many mom and pop businesses in the black parts of town, but the social interaction ends there.

At several public meetings in my hometown, I have mentioned that despite what one may think of our immigration policies, many immigrants are here, and we need to engage them and integrate them into our society, with the goal of deriving the best that we can from their involvement. Each time I have broached the subject, many citizens in the room have lowered their heads and looked at the floor without responding.

In recent months, I have tried something different. Every time I have encountered Hispanics, I have taken the initiative to walk up to them and start a conversation. Each time, without fail, they have been pleasant folks and almost ecstatic that someone outside of their group took the risk to engage them. It has always been a rewarding experience, although guarded it may have started.

Third, this episode also struck a chord when I learned of Senator’s Obama’s reference earlier this week to the efforts of his opponents to label him as different, and thus necessarily something that we should fear.

Our fear of the unknown, caution, and prejudice, even that racially based, appear to be hard wired to ensure survival and ease of negotiation in a complex world. But we also have a bigger brain which should enable us to think and reason beyond our biggest primal fears.

Some criticism has been leveled against the Andy Griffith Show over the years because of its conspicuous absence of blacks in a show based in a southern city. However, Andy Griffith himself sure made up for that during the airing of his Matlock series.

Be that as it may, my hat is off to the Andy Griffith Show, and particularly its writers, particularly considering the era in which the show was first viewed. Perhaps more of you will have the opportunity to view the Ed Sawyer episode before the upcoming presidential election.

© 2008, The Institute for Applied Common Sense


  1. Having dutifully read the above mentioned piece and digested the thoughts and implications, I find I am the first to comment. This is a peculiar position. After all, I may set the tone for the discussion and that tone might be different than someone else might try. In other words, we are all peculiar strangers at some time or another. I have often been in that position. My first move into a new town was when I was nine. Again when I was ten (though they were towns that shared a border). I went to three different schools by the time I was 11.
    Each year, there would be new kids to get to know and who would get to know me. When I was 17, my family (now just me and my parents) again and then again a year after that. And then I went off to yet another town for a summer and then I went in the Navy, an experience in of being tossed into a group as a stranger (a few times) and becoming "one of the group" facing new arrivals. Since then I have moved many times, different states, different cities. I have become used to being the stranger. After all that, I fully agree with you that people welcome you easily if you are willing to be open and friendly. I envy and feel sorry for those who live their whole lives in a small town. And I would have identified, at one time, with Ed in that episode.

  2. Thank you for republishing the post on "Ed". It is unfortunate that so many decisions are made out of fear. Fear seems to make some of us believe that we actually have a right to dictate the lives of others. There are those who justify any and all actions because of fear. And as you said in the post on being peculiar ... we miss out on so much by excluding certain members of our society.

    I read, once, that most wars would end quickly if we simply sat down at a table with the opposition and talked to them ... learned to see them as people instead of the enemy we are so afraid of.

    I congratulate you on searching out those "peculiar" members of our society and getting to know them. We'd be a better world if everyone did that.

    Small Footprints

  3. I love Jack Kerouac. He laid down the modern gospel on being peculiar. Kerouac, Ginsburg, Cassidy and all the beats were careening around the Mayberrys and big cities and commenting on the Levittown sameness that American society was beginning to become in 1960. These white kids dropped out, jumped in a car and made it their mission to devour all of the real culture of real America they could find ... finding that it was rooted in jazz and the cities and in the countryside and the bohemia they defined.

  4. Stever, though the time frame was a bit earlier, you have it right about the Beats. They rebelled against conformity which was about to kick into high gear. I think it is what caused much of the social rebellion of the the two decades; Beats in the 50s, drugs, sex, and antiwar in the 60s. But the 70s seemed to bring a return to conformity with the social rebellion co-opted by commercialism. How else would something like Disco thrive?

  5. Thanks Douglas. In thinking about your experiences as a kid, it made us think about the further complexity associated with "blending in" if you had a different language, manner of dressing, type of food, type of head dress, manner of writing, way of addressing men versus women, or youth vs adults. Thanks again.

  6. "Small Footprints," we appreciate your visits. Quite frequently, we generate posts, and then let time pass. We later decide to re-post them, without reviewing them, and then review the comments of others to our re-posting, before we revisit the original post and consider them again.

    This is one which we would not change in any way. In fact, it turned out to be rather prescient, in light of some of the comments made by folks at some of the rallies where Gov. Palin spoke.

    One thing that I learned handling litigated matters over the years - things only get worse as time goes on, and positions become more entrenched. Usually the initial differences or concerns at the beginning of the dispute or friction are relatively small. The interaction thereafter only exacerbates the ill will.

    That is probably applicable to many things in life. Thanks for encouraging people to engage one another at the outset.

  7. Thanks for the reference to Kerouac Stever. Some of those white kids, with a somewhat different agenda, were the kids who became "Freedom Riders" with the civil rights movement in the South during the 1960s. Without them, the "progress" would not have been made. Black folks could not have done it alone.

  8. Did any of you consider it inappropriate to have Pastor Rick Warren involved in the inauguration ceremonies?


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